20130926_inq_pstore26z-aBrad is a columnist for PLMALive, an online magazine sponsored by the Private Label Manufacturers Association.  He recently reported on Fare and Square (above), an exciting public-private collaboration in Chester, PA that might open a new front in the movement for food justice.  A link to Brad’s video is below.  Here’s the transcript:

For ten long years, the people of Chester, Pennsylvania wandered in the desert.  They were in a food desert, which is a low-income area whose residents don’t have convenient access to a supermarket.  Last month, the drought broke and a new full-service market opened in the City of Chester. It’s a new kind of store, it made life better in one low-income neighborhood, and it could be important nationally.

Nobody knows exactly how many Americans can’t get to a supermarket.  The US Department of Agriculture recently calculated the number who have low incomes, live in high-poverty areas, and are more than one mile away from a well-stocked food store – it’s about 12 million. We don’t know how many of these folks can just jump in their cars, but we do know that more than two million households in these areas do not own a car.

Food deserts can be urban or suburban, small towns or rural, but they have one thing in common. Their residents eat a lot of fast food and whatever they can find at the nearest convenience store.  This is one reason why low-income folks are more likely to suffer from expensive health problems like obesity and hypertension.

Grocery store executives are often reluctant to open stores in low-income urban neighborhoods because the projected sales don’t match the costs.  But recently the federal government changed the arithmetic. Since 2009, the Healthy Foods Financing Initiative has awarded developers about $77 million in grants and $400 million in tax breaks to open stores in food deserts.

The USDA and state and local agencies are also putting money on the table to encourage healthy eating in underserved areas. They are doing it because they believe that giving people access to healthy food will be cheaper than treating their diabetes.  The details are on Healthy Food Access, an excellent web site from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The supermarkets that work best in low-income urban areas tend to have limited assortments and stock a lot of private label products. Fare and Square is able to open in an extremely poor neighborhood because it is owned by a not-for-profit organization. And Fare and Square is different.

Fare and Square stocks lots of low-cost private label, but it also carries national brands and is strong on meats, deli, produce, and seafood. That is because shoppers prefer to have a choice, no matter how much money they have, according to William Clark, who runs the group Philabundance.

Clark was a successful developer of specialty foods before he took this job, and he has done his homework.  He knows that because of their tight budgets, customers at Fare and Square will often choose private label. He is giving his customers the freedom to choose so he can create a welcoming atmosphere and win their loyalty.

It took four years for Philabundance to raise the $7 million they needed to open Fare and Square.  They got grants from federal, state, and local governments, more than a dozen private foundations, and several hundred private donors. It would not have been possible to raise that kind of money for a store that was outside of a hard-core food desert.

But now, Philabundance doesn’t have to repay investors or banks.  All Bill Clark has to do to make his donors happy is break even while creating jobs and improving the City of Chester’s diet. And when he invites other not-for-profits in to do health screenings or other kinds of outreach, he is just advancing Fare and Square’s charitable purpose.

To be sure, Fare and Square is a gamble, and it might not work.  But it may also be the first not-for-profit supermarket in the country, and it is part of a wave of experimentation.  Entrepreneurs and not-for-profits are trying all kinds of new ways to get healthy food into underserved places. Private label products, because of their low cost, will be essential to these efforts.

Bill Clark is confident. He says that once Fare and Square is established, his group might even hire unemployed people to make their own private label products right in Philadelphia.  I don’t know how far efforts like Fare and Square are going to go, but I do know that they are worth watching.

Click here to see the video.